Nanny State


The system does our thinking for us on the things that matter – politics, ethics, philosophy – so that we needn’t concern ourselves. Complicated issues are made still more so by all sorts of methods to befog them. Knowledge is divided into a series of domains, to which the public has varying degrees of access. Certain knowledge becomes ‘specialist’ and is confined to the domains of the ‘specialisms’, where it is understood by ‘specialists’. When specialist knowledge does trickle down to the masses, it is invariably communicated in a condescending and obfuscating fashion, by a communications establishment that may be more interested in making money than actually communicating (Doctor and journalist Ben Goldacre on the media - “Why is science in the media so often pointless, simplistic, boring, or just plain wrong? […] It is my hypothesis that in their choice of stories, and the way they cover them, the media create a parody of science, for their own means.”23)

The insignificance of the individual is furthered through the vast and overwhelming nature of things. Modern ghost-stories tell of the horrors of biological weaponry; clips of military hardware overwhelm us with their brute force, bringing the alien and unfathomable sounds and dimensions of war machinery into the collective imagination, the collective nightmare; news programmes serve up conflicts in places we will never visit, and barely knew existed; concrete and glass tower over us, metal flies by us in a cloud of exhaust fumes, music becomes louder, faster.

In his analysis in 1942, Fromm made reference to Mickey Mouse, suggesting that the popularity of the cartoon was partly attributable to its archetypal display of the ‘small guy’ winning out over the ‘big guy’, a way for culture to maintain the illusion of control. In our age, we could perhaps just as easily look to the likes of Transformers as fulfilling this function: machines mesh in a clattering ballet of mechanised violence, and yet, from the carnage it is man – and the precious, unbroken sanctity of his body - that emerges triumphant. Amongst the crash and roar of advanced mechanisation, myths like Transformers sell the illusion that we are in control, whilst ultimately working to steal away our sovereignty.

Film, along with television, advertising, and other forms of storytelling, also serves to sell us a variety of fantasies and illusions that work to satisfy our collective and individual ideas of utopia, pacifying any urge we may have to actually realize these visions. As theorist Terry Eagleton explains, “By encouraging us to dream beyond the present, it may also provide the existing social order with a convenient safety-valve. Imagining a more just future may confiscate some of the energies necessary to achieve it.”24

As we touched upon, the system assigns us with a version of ourselves – the pseudo or social self – through telling us what we want and what we need, a process that is achieved via the various ideological structures of the State. Our cultural structure defines us through the popularization of certain types of art, the telling and re-telling of certain stories. Our communications structure, through its adverts and media stories, shapes our wants and needs, and delineates our ethical borders. Finally, our educational structure prepares us for what is to come through a process of pruning, initiating us into the customs of society and defining our conduct within it. The boundaries of our meanings are drawn by the system, and to look beyond them is to risk condemnation.

Through these systems a social-self is assigned to us, and this is the self that resides within the ‘public domain’; here the vibrant colours – the individual idiosyncrasies - of a society are mixed into a grey-brown soup. It is mostly a safe place, where risks cannot be taken; where the exposure of the individual – the true self – chances provocation and offence. “[The system] labels all actions ‘individualistic’ […] while subterraneanly, in despised everyday domains, it necessarily furnishes, as in a delirium, the elements for a collective formation … With this raw material, we must occupy ourselves – with gray buildings, market halls, department stores, exhibitions.”25

The public domain is accompanied by a ‘public voice’, exemplified by prevalent and popular figures like Big Brother’s Davina McCall, mercifully defining the limits of our intelligence and critical capacity with various proclamations on our behalf - “Did you understand that? No, neither did I!”

In the absence of the firm ground of self-knowledge, commodities - red-blood cells of the system - become ways of buoying up the self. The less an individual feels he is being somebody, the more need he has for possessions26; we come to define ourselves through what we own, the commodity reflecting a perceived sense of self. Our objects surround us, telling us everything about ourselves; who we are, how important we are, the ways in which we matter. If we can surround ourselves with enough objects then it follows that we would no longer need to look inside to know the self, and to love the self would simply be to love our possessions.

The State is the bad parent or the unconcerned lover – rich, and disinterested – showing affection through money and expensive gifts. Psychological self-development, as a concrete reality (as opposed to a fictional utopia, the likes of which we see frequently in modern forms of storytelling) is not in its interests; a nation of people who think for themselves would not fit into the capitalist mould quite so easily, and we may even begin to question the sanity of our various structures and systems. For this reason, amongst others, self-development is not on the popular agenda. Our capacity for critical thinking is dulled, and our political energy lost within the white-noise of complications, obfuscation and mistruths. Psychological immaturity becomes the status quo.

Capitalism allowed us the freedom to define ourselves in a way that was previously unavailable. Self development would, in Fromm’s view, make redundant the methods of escape that we currently employ to maintain our equilibrium, relieving us from ‘negative freedom’ and helping us toward ‘positive freedom’ – that is, freedom that is founded upon a positive assertion of the self and the world, rather than denial and escape.

We’ll return to the idea of self-development and psychological maturity later on, and look into its implications both for the individual and society.

It is worth noting that when we talk of the distractions of the system (such as cultural objects, like films or television programmes) our criticism is not so much of the objects themselves – which may often be created with the best of intentions - but with the ways in which they are used; in other words, the systems which instrumentalize them, put them to use. To observe that films are often part of a machinery of distraction, that they sanitize and sublimate tendencies that may go against the status quo, is not necessarily to condemn those involved in making films as conscious agents of the State. On the contrary, those who create these objects may often do so as a positive expression of creativity, and in our consumption of these objects we are able to appreciate and celebrate this creativity. This transaction – the sharing of ideas and meaning through culture – is a fundamental one to our species, and we cannot condemn these objects, or those that create them, for their part in it. If a malignancy exists, then it is in the structures and systems that surround these innate, and harmless, transactions. It is often our systems that force us onto the self-destructive paths that we tread, and these objects may be as much victims to them as we are.27

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